On One Hand

February 21, 2006

Hell and Karma in Buddhist Scripture

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Hell and Karma in Buddhist Scripture
Matthew Pizzuti

In one sense early Buddhist’s karma is similar to karma’s simplified portrayal in popular, modern Western culture: you do a bad thing, and bad things will return to you. Alternately, the law states, if you do a good thing, good things will return to you.

A lifeless and non-negotiable force, karma responds consistently to every individual’s deeds and cannot be avoided through faith or repentance. Punishment or reward occurs in this life or in following lives, and is inevitable.

But in early Buddhist literature, karma can be much more brutal than modern, forgiving interpretations, which often take karma out of the context of Buddhism or Hinduism altogether and attach it to a New Age or pseudo-Christian belief system. Actual Buddhist parables reveal that, in ancient Buddhism, suffering as a result of bad deeds can appear horrific, glaringly disproportionate to the deed caused.

Scripture tells a story of a monk, Chiko, who unwittingly slanders a bodhisattva and suffers extremely painful punishment in hell for nine days as a result (Lopez 2004, pg. 31). The bodhisattva, Gyogi, surely didn’t experience much pain at the hands of Chiko, since enlightened beings are not supposed to experience mental suffering. But Chiko is forced to suffer a punishment that far outweighs the pain he caused, being compelled to embrace pillars of near-molten metal until his body is completely charred, and then repeat the process. One of three things can be assumed from this apparent discrepancy: that the story is a parable and is not to be taken literally, that Chiko’s bad actions somehow rippled onward to cause harm to a larger number of people, or that an individual must pay back more suffering than he caused, resembling a loan in which the borrower must pay interest.

The scriptural excerpt “the Realms of Rebirth” (Lopez 2004, starting pg. 5) has more extreme examples of punishment seeming to far outweigh harm caused during life. For example, verse 42 states, “those who crush on sight the insects that appear in the midst of their rice are crushed again and again by iron pestles there indeed (pg. 9).” Killing more complex animals like birds or mammals, even simply for food, or being cruel to human beings results in punishments that are even more graphic, painful, and long-lasting.

The chapter, “An excerpt from a ghost (Lopez 2004, pg. 34)” reveals an extreme example: a Hungry Ghost who was once a monk explains that during his last human lifetime he was “disciplined in body,” but the text states that he “insulted and abused other monks through speech.” For this he now appears with the mouth of a pig, which might seem a fitting consequence of his previous disposition. The virtuous acts he performed through discipline resulted in a “golden complexion” that now contrast the pig-like snout, indicating that a lifetime that was both good and bad produced both good and bad consequences. But the text also states, “for the whole period between buddhas, he cooked in hell.” This is quite a punishment, as Buddhist cosmology places buddhas far apart in time and shows hell to be an awful place.

In scriptures that describe timespans spent in hell as extremely long, an explanation for the absurdly prolonged period might be that the individual suffering there continues to perform selfish acts from within hell so accumulates more and more bad karma. An excellent example of this is found in the chapter “Avoiding Hell, Gaining Heaven (Lopez 2004, pg. 69).” On pg. 71 the text states, “The sinners in [the hell of multiple resuscitations] always want to harm one another. When they encounter another sinner, they act like a hunter who has spied a deer. They use iron claws to rip each other to pieces, removing all flesh and blood until only the skeleton remains.” This would indicate that the sinner remains in hell until he or she somehow stops sinning and learns to perform wholesome acts, thus returning to a higher realm. Inhabitants of the hells are prisoners of themselves rather than some external, judging force.

This might also indicate that being re-born as an animal that is a carnivore necessitates a subsequent rebirth in hell, since the animal is sinning. A question that might negate this has to do with the fact that a lion may be so compelled to hunt and kill that it has no free will and thus does not gain negative karma by doing so. The question of intentionality within karma is brought up here and will be addressed later in this essay.

The scenario of continued sinning in hell also opens several possible models for the nature of karma which don’t seem to be directly answered in the selected scriptures. One model of karma lays it out as a set of positive and negative attributes which can be referred to as points for the sake of easy reference. A good act adds a positive point, which is “used up” when reward comes. A bad act adds a negative point, and punishment removes the negative points, or to borrow a metaphor from Christianity, “burns the sin away” as happens in Purgatory. Positive and negative points of karma might cancel each other out, or they might exist together, each fully manifested simultaneously as pain and joy that conflict and contrast, as in the example of the hungry ghost who had the golden complexion of virtue but the mouth of a pig at the same time.

Another model of karma uses the same set of positive or negative points, but these points are not “used up” by joy or suffering. Instead, a person with many points of bad karma will suffer for them and continue to suffer perpetually until good karma is achieved. A person who goes to hell with a number of points of bad karma must remain there until he or she commits an act of virtue that improves his or her karma, because in this scenario karma is a state of being rather than a set of marks paid or owed like money. Suffering itself cannot purge bad karma, only selfless acts (good karma) can counteract it. This scenario seems to be contradicted in some points of scripture. For example, after Chiko’s journey through hell, a guard tells him “you were summoned here so that you might eliminate your sin.” Chiko subsequently describes his time spent there as atonement (Lopez 1994, 32). In this scenario, it is necessary that good karma directly cancel bad karma rather than the two existing simultaneously, otherwise bad karma would be permanent.

Vital to the cycle of karma is the seeming irrelevance of intentionality. The fact that some negative karma is received even if the harm caused was accidental shows that wholesome people still have bad karma to pay for. Buddhist scripture tells a story of a monk who throws a stone and accidentally kills a bird by doing so (Lopez 2004, page 26). The bird is re-born as a bull, which one day pushes a boulder down a hill and unintentionally kills the monk. In that chapter, text explicitly states, “if even an unintentional act results in an unintentional retribution, then how much more so will murders that are accompanied by evil intentions generate baleful retribution!”

This would mean that the carnivorous lion would in fact accumulate increasingly negative karma. Since unintended harm can cause bad karma, logic also dictates that negative karma is unavoidable, to anyone. One must cause unintended harm as a necessity of living: eating kills animals and even a vegetarian diet kills plants, moving and walking kills insects and microorganisms, limited resources mean that when one organism or person lives other living things must die, and everyday social interaction causes unknown discomfort and mental pain to peers. Thus even those whose good deeds far outweigh the bad must suffer a degree of loss and pain due to some bad karma, and the only way to avoid that is to escape the cycle of karma altogether.

In Buddhism the word “karma” itself differs from the way it is casually used, because the word refers to an act itself rather than some substance or energy that emanates from certain kinds of acts. In that sense the “point” system used in this essay is inaccurate to the actual nature of karma in Buddhism. A good deed doesn’t cause or make good karma, it is good karma, and reward comes as a direct result of that act, not as a product of the accumulation of ethereal goodness after the act. Still, karma can be said to accumulate and complicate itself and is often referred to as if it were a substance.

1. Lopez, Donald S. Jr. Buddhist Scriptures. New York, New York: Penguin, 2004.


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